Doctors in Belgium are increasingly prescribing time in the great outdoors to patients in addition to medication and other treatments as the medical world becomes more aware of its positive health effects.
In Canada and on Scotland's Shetland island, doctors have been writing prescriptions for nature for years. According to Hans Keune, coordinator of the Care and the Natural Environment department at the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen), this trend is gaining ground in Belgium too.
"As humans, we have an innate connection with nature. It has been shown that spending time in green spaces makes us more relaxed and creative," he said.
"Nature as an element can definitely contribute, and it can do many things at once. A pill can usually do one thing, sometimes two, and therapy is also often very targeted, but nature can offer many benefits at once."
According to Keune, the trend of prescribing nature is attracting more and more interest among doctors, especially among GPs who are still in training. "They are increasingly choosing this theme for their own studies and trying to implement it through research," he told Radio 2.
Prescribing nature in practice
One general practitioner at UAntwerpen, Lotte Mortier De Borger, is basing her master thesis on promoting the beneficial link between nature and health. She handed out actual prescriptions — today, the advice is usually given verbally — for spending time outdoors to patients who are suffering from tension or stress.
"I talk to them about their lifestyle, and can then prescribe a visit to nature. Most patients respond very enthusiastically to that. The majority of people know that nature is good for them, but advice from the doctor, especially if it is written in black and white on a prescription, is something patients take more seriously," she said.
This advice is mainly prescribed as a supplement to other forms of therapy, medication and prevention. "You cannot replace breast cancer treatment by hugging trees. But it is a safe treatment for many complaints," said Keune.
However, Mortier De Borger stressed that it can be an extra bonus when unnecessary medication is avoided as a result of prescribing nature.
Relying on nature for improved help is nothing new. In the middle of the 19th century, parks were created purely for financial-economic reasons, stock market specialist Pascal Paepe explained. "The trees purify the air and as a result, there was less absenteeism among the workers in the factories."
Since then, a lot of research has been conducted, and studies have confirmed that people who live near nature not only feel healthier but are objectively healthier.
Being around green areas can also heavily impact people's mental health. Last year, researchers from the UAntwerpen and Sciencano looked into how the impact of the urban living environment on inhabitants of Brussels, and found that natural environments have a positive impact on our well-being.
"They give people a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle and recharge their batteries. Green space creates mental space," researcher Laura Lauwer said.
Nature can also be very beneficial to prevent the occurrence of certain illnesses, Keune said. "For young children, contact with nature is also very good for building up resistance against certain conditions, for example, it can reduce the risk of developing asthma."